The explosions of shotguns echo through the crisp Kansas morning air. To the unknowing it may sound like a war was breaking out south of the sleepy little town of Tipton. To the residents of Tipton though, it is an all to familiar sound from October till March.
Situated approximately two miles south of Tipton and marked only by a stone sign sits the Houghton Ranch. Established in 1872, five generations of Houghtons have worked for perfection no matter what the endeavor is.
In the case of Keith and Debra Houghton, that endeavor is providing quality traditional upland gamebird hunting. The Houghton’s established Ringneck Ranch in 1983. More than 12,00 acres of prime pheasant, prairie chicken, and bobwhite quail habitat spreads it way through the Carr Creak valley and is back dropped by the Blue Hills.
Turning off the highway to travel down the rutted gravel road, signs posted inform the traveler that dogs are busy working and that they are crossing over onto a controlled shooting area that is licensed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife.
A drive down the long twisting driveway passes Milo fields and tall grass and prepares the hunter for the hunt that awaits them the next day. A newly constructed lodge and ranch greets the guests upon arrival.
As the new hunters cross the threshold of the ranches newest building, they immediately feel like they have been transported to another world. Beautiful wood paneled walls, a rustic looking bar with equally rustic looking stools, and simple but pleasant wood furniture be speckles the lobby. A pro shop sits near the back of the lobby area but blends itself well enough not to be intrusive.
Named “Cedar Lodge” this newest building to the ranch uses harvested cedar trees that died in the recent drought as its internal woodwork. After checking in at the front desk in Cedar Lodge, guests then move to their rooms. Some could be staying at Cedar Lodge others may stay at the Hangar. If those options are full then there is always the popular ranch house, the Houghton House, the Waggoner House, or the exclusive Blue Hills Lodge.
Each of the buildings have private and group rooms with comfortable sleeping arrangements, a gathering room and other niceties that provide the comfort of home. Including newly added high speed wireless internet.
Sitting off of the Houghton House is the ranch kennels. Inside these kennels
are housed most of the common pointing breeds of dogs. These include Brittany’s, French Brittany’s, German Shorthaired, German Wirehaired, Weimaraner, Setters, aand Hungarian Vizslas.
A group of hunters from Dallas, Texas have been out working the fields all morning. With 39 pheasants down, it is time for lunch. The dinning facility in the Ranch house is set up like a large family dinning room. The cook, Phyllis Schmitt, has prepared a steaming pot of chili with all the fixings. Accenting the chili on the side is a warm pan of gooey cinnamon roles, a local favorite.
Chatter amongst the hunters is about everything except their jobs. Ribbing about a missed shot and just general good natured conversation fills the room. Seven year veterans of Ringneck Ranch, these hunters said they comeback because they know exactly what they are going to get in the fields and in the kitchen.
The term used by the staff at the ranch is “country gourmet” and it truly sums up what will be found there. Everything from fist thick pork chops to sauced pheasant breast is served. In the kitchen area, is the staff dinning room where guides sit together and discuss the areas of the ranch that are being hunted that day.
Dan Watson, guide since the ranch’s inception, is interrupted briefly by a departing guests. Kind words are exchanged and so are promises of the next hunt.
“All our guests are sent a letter every year reminding them of the dates that they hunted the previous year,” said Keith, “Guests are guaranteed reservations for the corresponding dates time as their previous hunts upon receipt of their deposits.”
Keith said that return rate is about 90%.
Return rate is something that Keith takes very seriously. “With out high rate of annually returning guests, this type of business would not survive,” he said.
With dessert of warm apple crisp and ice cream finished, the group from Dallas decides it is time to head back into the field. Their gunless guide, Adam Seigfried, the youngest of the Ringneck Ranch guides, checks with the other guides before deciding where to go. In this case they will be heading to the east draw.
Final preparations are made before the hunters load up on the four door 4-wheel drive truck that will take them to their spot. Arriving at the first destination, Adam checks with the hunters to see who would like to be the “blocker.” After Adam gives final instructions, Keith leads the blocker to his location and explains the method of the hunt.
“The hunters are using a drive and block method,” he said, “the guys working the field along with the dogs, will drive the pheasants towards the blocker at the other end. The pheasant will run towards the blocker before eventually taking flight.”
Keith said that location is very important. More important than your own location is knowing were everyone else is. Safety is a big issue for Keith.
Keith said that hunters are given a safety briefing before heading into the field. All the hunters must wear bright orange hats, protective eyewear, and correct hunter clothing to insure total safety.
With nothing flushing in the first area, Keith repositions the blocker as the party continues down the trail. The three dogs work endlessly smelling for the birds when finally one of the Brittany’s goes on hard point.
“Watch, there is going to be some action here,” said Keith.
The other two dogs immediately come back and join the pointer and begin looking in an overgrown area. All the hunters appear puzzled but are confident the dogs know their jobs. Suddenly a rooster flies out of cover and makes a mad flight for safety. Three shots ring out from the hunting party before the bird goes down in a puff of feathers. Without much prompting from the guide, the dogs have the bird and bring it back to Adam.
With one down, Adam leads the group further down the trail. Eventually a pheasant is flushed by the dogs and a hail of shotgun pellets follow it. So it goes the rest of the day. Adam works the dogs until a bird is finally flushed out and the hunters fire away. Not every bird is taken though. Some flush without any prompting from the dogs and make it away from the hunters.
“That’s okay,” said Keith, “We’ll get him on another day.”
Time begins to tick away and Keith decides he needs to head back to Cedar Lodge. Checking with Adam to see where the hunters will be heading next, he kicks his Polaris ATV into gear and drives off. Keith knows the grounds well and makes it a quick trip back to the main office.
Keith explains that one of the features of Ringneck Ranch is that it is a licensed Controlled Shooting area.
“By being a controlled shooting area, it allows us a more liberal bag limit, and also extends our season” he said.
Another feature that makes it unique to other hunting lodges is that the guests stay right in the hunting area.
“We are set up so a fellow just has to bring his shotgun and clothes. We are very unique because you stay right in the middle of the hunting grounds,” he said.
The ranch has been featured on two episodes of ESPN’s The Great Outdoors, two episodes of PBS’ Cabin Country, was chosen by Fiochhi USA Ammunition as the site for taping The Art and Science of Pheasant Hunting video. Remington’s Hunting the Country on TNN and ESPN2′s American Expedition have both had the ranch on their programs.
This year there are four programs slated to be filmed at the ranch and a hard back book by Wingshooters World is in production. Despite all the publicity, Keith, Debra, Alan, and Carol all agree that you may arrive the first time as a guest but you will leave as a friend.